Smart plugs and smart light bulbs are arguably the easiest ways to explore home automation. They are both relatively inexpensive and easy to use. There are a few things to know to make your exploration easier. I’ll cover smart plugs in this article and smart bulbs in a later one.
Smart Plugs and Smart Outlets. Smart plugs come in the form of either an outlet plug or a strip. All the user does is plug it into an electrical outlet. When an appliance is plugged in, the coffee maker for instance, it immediately becomes smart. The plug is connected to the home Wi-Fi network and can be controlled by a smart phone app or a voice assistant. There are also plugs (sometimes called switches) designed for outdoor use.
The use of smart plugs and outlet strips together is a bit of an issue. There seems to be no problem with plugging a dumb outlet strip into a smart plug as long as you want all the items connected to the strip to operate on the same schedules or commands. Users also say it is ok to connect a smart plug into a strip as long as the total energy load does not become too large for the strip. That means being careful about devices that draw a lot of current like space heaters and hair dryers, which is good advice however you are connecting your devices.
The Advantages of Using Smart Plugs. One key feature of smart plugs is energy monitoring of the connected appliance. The exact services vary, but plugs can offer real-time monitoring, compile historical records of energy use and send you weekly or monthly summaries. That may be only marginally useful for most home appliances. It can, however, be very useful if you are concerned about the so-called “vampire energy” consumed by electronic devices that are still using energy (standby power) even though they are turned off. Many devices have a sleep mode that minimizes vampire power drain, and that’s helpful. The straight-forward solution is to unplug those devices, your cable box for example, when they are not in use, but that’s a pain. Smart plugs can turn off power when the device is not in use, automating an otherwise onerous chore and potentially saving money if they are connected to devices that draw a considerable amount of standby power.
Other useful features include built-in dimmers and the away (vacation) mode. This replaces a mechanical timer for turning lights off and on to mask the fact that the homeowner is away. Scheduling devices for daily use can be done through the routines available in the voice assistants. If you’re not using a voice assistant, scheduling will require IFTTT capability. That stands for If This Then That and it us used to set up simple rules. “If it’s 7 a.m. then turn on the coffee pot.” Another useful design feature is extra charging ports.
Possible Disadvantages of Using Smart Plugs. Design is also the place to start when assessing drawbacks. Smart plugs or strips are going to take up some room. The size of the plug itself is going to be an issue in some spaces. If space is tight, look for a plug with the outlet on the side, or use a strip for easier access. Also pay attention to the fact that some plugs block the lower outlet if installed in the top outlet. Large plugs may make it hard to use the top outlet.
Far and away the biggest issue is the number of devices that become dependent on the home’s network when smart plugs are used. Those devices all become vulnerable to hacking, which could endanger your personal data or even open the way for physical access to the home. That makes the security of your home Wi-Fi network a paramount consideration. In a recent post I suggested you consider adding mobile security from your current security suite to your mobile devices. I’ve since found that adding mine conveyed an additional benefit over just securing the mobile device. It frequently scans my home Wi-Fi network and lets me know it’s secure. The more smart devices you have, the more important that reassurance becomes.
Cost Issues. Cost need not be a major disadvantage, but there are a few cautions. Smart plugs have tended to cost in the neighborhood of $15 to $30, with packs of 2 or 4 often going for $20 to $30. Cheaper alternatives are available. As always, do research and read reviews. Here’s a good place to start with a comparison that lists the features you should consider.
The overriding cost issue is whether the smart plug requires a smart home hub. Some do, and that puts costs in a whole other range.
Once again, I’d encourage you to experiment on a small scale to obtain benefits that are especially important to you. But you should do so with a long-term plan in mind, so you don’t find that you have multiple pieces of electronics that don’t work together.